When most people look at graffiti, they see a seemingly random series of curves, angles, and lines, often surrounded by other ancillary and apparently meaningless symbols. Graffiti has long been associated with gang culture. Individual “sets” or local gang chapters use certain colors and devices to establish their territory, warn enemies off their sacred ground, and tell the locals who “owns” the streets they walk. These “tags” tend to be very straightforward series of letters and numbers, sometimes crossed out, sometimes not. Clues to look for as to the state of gang relations in your area are crossed-out letters or the letter K added to the end of a tag. (These amount to death threats by rival gangs.
While this has become the most well-known and alarming form of graffiti, especially in inner-city slums, more artistic and eye-catching graffiti is popping up all over the world in unexpected places. One example is the ever-growing body of work by Banksy, the enigmatic UK street artist, who melds street art and items in the ambient environment into stingingly witty and accurate social commentaries.
Another is Moose, also from Britain, who pioneered the art of “clean” or “reverse” graffiti, which entails removing grime and soot from surfaces to leave images in cleaned brick and concrete which will theoretically last as long as the rest of the surface remains tarnished.
While graffiti has become synonymous with gang culture, not all graffiti is gang-related. However, graffiti artists raise the specter of criminal activity wherever they go. Defacing private or public property is illegal just about everywhere, which has polarized the public into three camps: Those who believe the artists’ talents should be nurtured and encouraged; those who believe that no matter how well-meaning or attractive, graffiti is still a crime; and those who simply don’t care one way or the other. Whatever you believe about graffiti or its relative artistic merits, one thing is glaringly apparent. Graffiti, whether to denote territory or as an outlet for artistic expression, is here to stay.